Artophilia  •  414   •  13 December 2021

Anna Bilińska „Portrait of George Gray Barnard”


Portrait of George Gray Barnard shown in the exhibition entitled The Artist. Anna Bilińska 1854-1893 at National Museum in Warsaw was immediately received with great acclaim. The representation of the young sculptor drew visitors’ attention equally due to its size and the beauty of the sitting subject. This is by no means surprising; even 130 years ago it awoke similar emotions.

Anna Bilińska, Portrait of Sculptor George Grey Barnard in His Atelier | 1890, State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg

275 hours, five thousand francs

Anna Bilińska painted her greatest painting (at least in terms of the size) in Paris between April 1889 and September 1890. It represents a young American sculptor George Grey Barnard. The meticulous artist duly noted in her notebook that she devoted 275 hours to work on the painting. To put things in perspective – the same notebook reveals that most of the oil portraits she produced took only several dozens of hours, pastel portraits just a few hours. What we also learn from the same source is how much she was paid for the portrait: five thousand francs. It is the second highest amount listed in the column “jobs sold”. The only more expensive painting she created (the difference is exactly one thousand francs) is Portrait of a Young Pianist, Józef Hofmann.

Anna Bilińska, Portrait of Sculptor George Grey Barnard in His Atelier, detail | 1890, State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg

The two most expensive paintings have a common denominator – the commissioner, Alfred Corning Clark (1844-1896), who was an American philanthropist and patron of the arts. His father won a fortune as a business partner of Isaac Singer, the manufacturer of the famous sewing machines. He invested the money he had made wisely and owing to that his son could generously support artists. Barnard and Hoffmann were both Clark’s protégées, therefore he commissioned Bilińska, who was at that time a widely recognised and acclaimed artist, to paint their portraits.

Artist at work

George Grey Barnard, source: The World’s Work Magazine | archive.org

The portrayal of Barnard has without a doubt an official character; its size is enough to testify to that. Nevertheless, it clearly stands out from the typical paintings of the genre. The convention dictates that whoever sits for the painting, even if it is an artist posing in his or her atelier, is depicted in elegant clothing and only carefully chosen attributes hint to the profession of the sitting subject. In the case of Barnard’s portrait, he appears to have taken a short break from his work to sit on the wooden platform. The man is covered in clay, and he still holds a piece of it in his right hand.

A few years later Bilińska painted herself as an artist in a similar fashion. In the self-portrait she is wearing a basic apron and her hair is in slight disarray – the unusual honesty with which she depicted herself at work captivated the viewers. However, when looking at Barnard’s portrait we should not be led astray by “no filter” optics – the clothes the sculptor is wearing are by no means contemporary and they are thought to be a subtle tribute to Michelangelo whom he admired from the early days. The way he sits for the painting is also by no means accidental – the pose perfectly shows off his muscular physique. However, one glance at the Barnard’s photos taken at that time is enough to claim that Bilińska idealised her sitter.

George Grey Barnard, source: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington

The sculptor is shown as a very attractive man. Sylwia Zientek notes that “the model as well as marble statues of men he created exude erotic power.” She believes that “they [Barnard and Bilińska] had a brief affair or were physically attracted to each other.” It is difficult to corroborate this theory. Around that time Bilińska accepted the proposal of Antoni Bohdanowicz, her future husband, but only on the condition that the wedding date would be postponed due to Bilińska’s mourning of her beloved Wojciech Grabowski. Bohdanowicz describes her mental state at that time in the following words “[ …] she believes that she has nothing left but work and art”.

Masterpiece!

Anna Bilińska | 1885, source: photograph from the collection of Andrzej Cerliński

The public exhibition of the portrait at the 1890 Paris Salon was a massive success. The catalogue lists the work as Portrait of Mr Geo. B followed by a note H.C. – hors concours – outside the competition. To exhibit works without entering the completion was considered a great privilege which Bilińska gained in the wake of the success of Self Portrait.

The artist ordered a special service for collecting press clippings when she started her career in Paris. Thanks to that we can easily follow the voices of the critics on the portrait of Barnard – all of them are carefully arranged in a scrapbook that today can be found in the Jagiellonian Library. The clippings referring to The Salon of 1890 take up a few pages and the tone of the reviews is generally enthusiastic. Only one review is unlike the rest as its author finds the painting pretentious.

On the other hand, a correspondent of the Cracow daily “Time” is full of praise:

Over the last few years Ms Anna Bilinska has reached new heights and has become one of the best contemporary portrait artists. She has already received two medals at Paris exhibitions for her works. Still, never have we seen an oeuvre by her that could rival this one. We do not hesitate to call it a masterpiece.

source: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington

Please imagine a beautiful, black-haired young man dressed in quaint yet simple clothes, sitting in his atelier in front of an enormous mass of grey, wet clay he is working on. There is so much warmth, so much energy in this portrait by Ms A. Bilińska that it is impossible to take your eyes off it.

A Bessie H. Woolford entitled her review published in one of the Chicago papers with an enthusiastic exclamation mark: Masterpiece! The young sculptor was called by the critics “artistic gladiator” or, in contrast, an “ephebe”. The painting by Bilińska even became the subject of the poem entitled “A Young Sculptor” by American writer and poetess Marie Sears Brooks.

What is interesting, Bilinska added the last finishing touches to the painting in September 1890 – a year after the exhibition had closed. Shortly after, Clark passed the portrait to Barnard’s parents who hung it in their home in Madison, Indiana. In 1915 the portrait was entrusted to the State and became a part of the collection of Pennsylvania State Museum.

source: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington

The Artistic Gladiator

George Grey Barnard, source: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington

Who was that “artistic gladiator” that captivated the public? George Grey Barnard was born in 1863 in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. His father was a Presbyterian minister and because of that, the family moved quite often. Early in his life Barnard was interested in… taxidermy. Before the age of fifteen he had assembled an entire collection of stuffed animals. This hobby definitely helped him to understand the basics of anatomy well. As a teenager Barnard worked for some time at the jewellery shop, but he also apprenticed to sculptor Leonard Volk. He later furthered his education at Art Institute of Chicago, and in 1883 he moved to Paris. There he studied in Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Pierre-Jules Cavelier. Like many aspiring artists in Paris, he suffered poverty, just as Bilińska who also struggled at the beginning of her career.

The young artist got a lucky break in 1886 when Alfred Clark took an interest in him. Barnard received commissions and benefactions from his patron which helped the young man to gain financial stability and focus on his work. In 1896 he returned to the USA as a distinguished artist. He died in 1938 in New York.

George Grey Barnard, source: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington

Barnard is thought to be a representative of a new school in American sculpture. One of the critics saw it even in the Bilińska’s painting:

The sculptor […] and his great unfinished idea emerging from the background, represent much more than a good pose and perfect colour – it represents the young American school in the foreground of American art.

The influence of Rodin’s symbolism is clearly visible in Barnard’s work, however he preferred to be compared with Michelangelo, whom he particularly admired.

George Grey Barnard, source: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington

The Second Masterpiece

George Grey Barnard, source: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington

In Bilinska’s painting Barnard sits in front of the sculpture entitled “The Struggle of the Two Natures in Man”. He worked on it from 1888 and in the portrait the artist depicted one of the early stages of its creation – a clay model. Barnard must have prepared beforehand a bozzetto, a smaller scale “sketch” of the sculpture.

In 1890 he was in the finishing stages of a 1:1 model of the sculpture, and a year later a plaster sculpture was created based on that. It was common knowledge among nineteenth century sculptors that “clay means life, plaster death, and marble is the resurrection.” Many sculptures did not get past the ill-fated second stage as bronze and marble were very expensive.

Barnard could count on his patron’s support and owing to that his work was immortalised in precious Carrara marble. It was a wide-spread practice at that time to delegate the fulfilment phase of the work, however, it was not the case with Barnard. He carved the sculpture himself in stone after the initial processing in Italy.

For more than a decade while Barnard was in Paris, he persistently refused to have any of his works publicly exhibited. Only in 1894, at the age of thirty, did he make his public debut. It was worth the wait as the members of the salon jury accepted all six of his submitted works. What drew the most attention was the biggest and ultimately most ambitious piece – “The Struggle of the Two Natures in Man”. The author of the sculpture became famous overnight.

George Grey Barnard, The Struggle of the Two Natures in Man at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The dramatic expression of the work calls for symbolic interpretation, yet even Barnard changed his mind frequently about its significance. The contemporary title – “The Struggle of the Two Natures of Man” was given much later. In 1894 at Salon, the sculpture was exhibited as Je sens deus homes en moi (I feel two men in me). Barnard also touched upon a broadly understood concept of freedom. The image of two fighting men can be read as a triumph of the spiritual element over the physical one. Hence, the bat on the left shoulder of one of the figures is often read as the symbol of darkness with surrounds the “inferior” nature of a man. According to another interpretation Barnard shows a new concept of a winner who sympathises with the defeated and is constantly vulnerable to defeat himself.

George Grey Barnard, The Struggle of the Two Natures in Man | 1892-1894, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York